Music

A Sleepin’ Bee

A Sleepin' Bee

A Sleepin’ Bee by Edwin Roman

“When a bee lies sleepin’
In the palm o’ your hand
You’re bewitch’d and deep in love’s
Long look’d after land
Where you’ll see a sun-up sky
With the mornin’ new
And where the days go laughin’ by
As love comes a-calling on you
Sleep on, bee, don’t waken,
Can’t believe what just passed
He’s mine for the takin’
I am happy at last.
Maybe I dreams, but he seems
Sweet golden as a crown,
A sleepin’ bee done told me
I will walk with my feet off the ground
When my one true love I has found
Sleep on, bee, don’t waken,
Can not believe what just passed
He’s mine for the takin’
I am happy at last…
Maybe I dreams, but he seems
Golden as a crown,
A sleepin’ bee told me
I will walk with my feet off the ground
When my one true love
I has found…”

Song composed by Harold Arlen with Lyrics by Arlen and Truman Capote

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The season six cast of Glee.

Why Glee Matters

Glee was a musical television series that focused on the fictitious McKinley High School glee club, the New Directions. It was conceived in 2005 by Ian Brennan as a film and produced from 2009 to 2015 by prolific television producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Nip / Tuck, American Horror Story). I started brainstorming this blog entry on the same day that Leonard Nimoy passed away and realized that Glee actually has a lot in common with Star Trek. While Star Trek used science fiction to explore humanity, Glee used music.

One of the most common complaints about the show was that the cast “butchered” great songs. I agree with this, in part, but do not blame the cast; I blame the way they were recorded, with that oddly canned and sternly cleaned-up sound. However, if you watch Glee: The Concert Movie (2011), where the cast sings live, you will hear some really terrific vocals (perhaps it was too expensive to record them live as they acted). Glee excelled at introducing young people to the great songs from rock, pop, R&B, Soul and Broadway songbooks. The show also had some really stellar production numbers and choreography that included impressive re-stagings of Funny Girl and West Side Story.

Star Trek is noted for its progressive, civil rights era viewpoints and one of television’s first multiracial casts. Similarly, Glee should be noted for the way in which marginalized people and groups were given visibility and a voice. Glee portrayed characters with Down syndrome, OCD disorders, obesity and individuals who identified as LGBTQ. Glee also explored various important social issues like bullying, spirituality, racism, race relations, gay marriage and the quality of American education. Andrew Nietor, a former colleague of mine, who is now an immigration attorney, once wrote in his blog:

“When the choice is compassion vs. hatred, compassion will always win. It is also the side favored by history.”

Glee chose compassion and that is why, like Star Trek,  it will be favored by history.

http://www.fox.com/glee

Music Review: Madonna’s Rebel Heart

I have been a true blue Madonna fan for 30-plus years. Madonna’s initial appeal for me stemmed from the way she brought her East Village sensibility to the mainstream: as a native New Yorker, I totally grooved to this. Later, I would appreciate and identify with the way she let her love of classic music and cinema inspire her work. You can hear and see the influences that include Sly and the Family Stone, Marlene Dietrich, Frida Kahlo, Cabaret, Disco and Walt Whitman. Yes, Walt Whitman. On one of the songs from her 1994 album, Bedtime Stories, she quotes a line from Walt Whitman’s “Voices” from Leaves of Grass. If you had asked me in 1994 if I thought that Madonna would one day write and record a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna” I probably would have replied with a resounding no.

So what the hell happened? How did she go from being inspired by artists from Motown’s roster and Tamara de Lempicka, to being inspired by Nicki Minaj? And before you accuse me of ageism, the point I am trying to make is that her work lately has devolved and not evolved. Madonna is pushing sixty yet her earlier work was far more sophisticated. Using words like “fuck” is not necessarily excelling at songwriting or staying relevant. Is dumbing it down the only way to appeal to young people?

Rebel Heart is not a total loss. There are some good tracks and some really terrible ones. I read that she intended each song to stand-alone so that is how I am going to approach this review.

Living For Love: The best song on the album. An instant classic. Madonna at her best.

Devil Pray: The second track and the second best song. The song explores how people take drugs and religion to connect to a higher level of consciousness.

Ghosttown: The third track and the third best song. The song explores humanity connecting to one another in spite of the world’s insanity.

Unapologetic Bitch: Here is where the album starts to get shaky. The song is catchy, but sounds like something a younger and inexperienced recording artist would sing.

Illuminati: Beyonce meets Minaj.

Bitch I’m Madonna: Perhaps the worst song lyrically. The music is actually appealing, but those lyrics…

Hold Tight: Lyrically good, but overproduced musically.

Joan of Arc: For me, the most irritating song on the album. I find it absolutely ridiculous when she writes songs complaining about being famous (such as “Drowned World” from the brilliant Ray of Light). She sings, “Each time they write a hateful word, Dragging my soul into the dirt, I wanna die, Never admit it but it hurts.” Come on Madonna, you have never publicly uttered a hateful word at others? And what the hell does your fame have to do with Joan of Arc?

Iconic: A fun pop song that features Mike Tyson!

HeartBreakCity: The fourth best track on the album. It explores the aftermath of a relationship that has gone sour after putting your best foot forward. The track could have been better had it not been for the processed vocals.

Body Shop: A tongue-in-cheek song about the parallels between cars and sex.

Holy Water: A peculiar song about the miracles of oral sex. Okay Madonna, I guess eating your pussy is like holy water…? I cringed when I heard her sing, “Bitch get off my pole.” Where did you get the idea for that lyric, a reality show? She also sings, “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” I am pretty sure that she originally sang it as “Jesus”, but someone likely told her to tone it down because most of the world may not remember that she once had a boy toy named Jesus Luz (I could imagine her defending why she sang the lyric using him as the “inspiration”).

Inside Out: A great song about getting closer to someone by asking them to confess their deepest secrets. Another song where I wish she hadn’t over processed her vocals.

Wash All Over Me: A pretty good song that explores life’s uncertainties that could have been great, but again we have the over processed vocals.

Best Night: A boring song about having sex. Snooze.

Nas and Madonna

Nas gets licked by Madonna.

Veni Vidi Vici: This autobiographical song incorporates past song titles into the lyrics and features Queensbridge Rap Legend, Nas. Nas’ contribution was the best thing about this song.

S.E.X.: And yet another boring, and remarkably unimaginative song, about screwing. Yawn.

Messiah: A brilliant song about trying win over someone’s heart. I wish it were more acoustic because it had the potential to be an emotional and vocal tour de force.

Rebel Heart: The title track where Madonna finally showcases some vocals without that processing—which doesn’t translate well while listening with headphones. The track is a departure from many of the other overproduced tracks on this album.

If Madonna had cut songs like “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch I’m Madonna” and brought a more acoustic feel to some of the vocals, this could have been a good album. A rebel is a person who resists any authority, control, or tradition. While I would certainly consider Madonna an artist with a rebel heart, by dumbing down lyrics to stay relevant and appeal to young people, what she is actually doing is simply marching in step with everyone else.

Nina’s Way

Nina Simone: Red Hot and Blue.

My tribute painting to the High Priestess of Soul. I thought of what Picasso may have done if Simone had been a subject.

If I have any say regarding my last moments on this planet, the final song I would want to hear is Nina Simone’s recording of “My Way.”

I first discovered the song in 1989 during a visit to Tower Records. I was perusing in the Jazz section and a fellow patron strongly recommended Simone’s 1971 album, Here Comes The Sun. The album, which is a recording accomplishment, features an assortment of cover songs that notably includes “Angel of the Morning”, “Just Like a Woman”, the title track and the brilliant “My Way.” Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, first popularized “My Way” in 1969.

After hearing the 1967 French song, “Comme d’habitude” (“As Usual”), Paul Anka acquired the publishing rights at no cost (except for the rights to the melody, which the authors retained). A year later, while Anka was having dinner with Frank Sinatra, Sinatra declared that he was, “getting out of the business. I’m sick of it, I’m getting the hell out.”  Inspired by Sinatra’s frustration, he wrote the English lyrics (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_53Ygpgvuss ). Sinatra recorded the song in late 1968 and released it in early 1969. “My Way” reached number 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number 2 on the Easy Listening  chart. In England, the song achieved a still unmatched record: the recording with the most weeks in the Top 40, from April 1969 to September 1971 (http://www.riaa.com/goldandplatinumdata.php?artist=%22My+Way%22).

Since Sinatra’s recording, there have been numerous and varied covers of the song. Elvis Presley’s live version during his satellite-televised concert from Hawaii showcases his remarkable vocal ability ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWStRiZ-OCM ). The Gipsy Kings covered the song using a traditional gipsy arrangement, with a Spanish translation of the English lyrics that is earthy and exuberant (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fsw2NQb5xSA ). Shirley Bassey does a mind-blowing live version that, like Elvis, showcases the full spectrum of her voice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pjPTfygX3U ). Bea Arthur sang it on her breakout television series, Maude, to great comic effect and some rather fine vocals (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tTWjg74dis ). La Lupe released a Spanish translation of Comme d’habitude in 1970 with an awe-inspiring vocal and musical arrangement (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yGgyIup3CVo ).

The lyrics of “My Way” tell the story of an older person reflecting on their life and taking responsibility for how they dealt with challenges while maintaining integrity. Nina Simone’s version (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIkoeocWhcw ) is special because her re-arranged version of the song, which is more upbeat, melodic, and syncopated, feels like an affirmation and celebration and, for me, musically encompasses the message of the song. Simone’s version fiercely combines a lush orchestra, angelic backing vocals, and elements of Black Christian music that are all highlighted by an unexpected bongo drum. Perhaps my favorite part of the song is the way it ends: Simone sings the final lyrics (“and did it my way…”) and the orchestra keeps playing for two minutes. It is powerful, epic and eternal: something worthy of hearing as you cross into the great unknown.

Best of Nina Simone Playlist

Sinnerman (from the Inland Empire soundtrack)

The Pusher (from Just Like A Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs of the 1960’s)

Cherish (from Silk and Soul)

Keeper of the Flame (from Compact Jazz: Nina Simone)

Wild is the Wind (from Nina Simone at Town Hall)

Ne Me Quitte Pas (from I Put a Spell on You)

For All We Know (from Little Girl Blue)

Four Women (from The Complete Nina Simone on Phillips Recordings)

Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair (from Compact Jazz: Nina Simone)

To Be Young, Gifted and Black (from The Essential Nina Simone)

In the Morning (from Just Like A Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs of the 1960’s)

Angel of the Morning (from Here Comes the Sun)

O-O-H Child (from Here Comes the Sun)

To Love Somebody (from Sugar in My Bowl)

Just Like a Woman (from Here Comes the Sun)

My Way (from Here Comes the Sun)

Additional Reading

A New Yorker piece on Simone:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice

Other Web Sites and Links

A musician who loves the bongo drum of “My Way” and plays along:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIS9UUAkSo0

Nina Simone’s Official Web Site

http://www.ninasimone.com/

Celia and Isadora

 

The only way one legend can pay tribute to another is brilliantly.

Isadora Duncan and Celia Cruz

Isadora Duncan and Celia Cruz

The Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz (1925-2003), had a long career that encompassed several genres of music and lasted a remarkable six decades. She recorded more than 70 albums and won two Grammy and three Latin Grammy awards. Cruz, in spite of her recording achievements, reminds me of Tina Turner in that both, in my humble opinion, are better live singers than studio singers: their energy almost seems diminutive in the studio, while on stage it can not be contained—making for a memorable music experience!

I was fortunate to have seen Cruz sing live at Carnegie Hall in the early 1990’s with her musical brother, the legendary Tito Puente. To understand what I am trying to convey, check out this video of Cruz, at the height of her powers in 1974, performing in Zaire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9iIBCO3vlE . While I adore Cruz live, my favorite song by her is a brilliant studio recording of her tribute to dance legend Isadora Duncan.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was an American dance pioneer known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” She was a revolutionary because her dancing eschewed the stringency of ballet while advocating the notion of free-spiritedness and the ideologies of ancient Greece (beauty, philosophy, and humanity). Duncan created a completely new way to dance. Cruz’s song captures Duncan’s spirit and creativity, lyrically and musically.

Isadora formo la liberacion (Isadora formed the liberation)
Isadora Duncan leyenda que no murio (Isadora Duncan your legend did not die)

Lyrically, the song tells of Duncan’s life and career and makes a brief reference to her very dramatic death.

y violento tu final (your end was violent)
Isadora Isadora Duncan
yo te tengo que cantar (And I have to sing to you)
para ti va mi cancion (I give you my song)

On September 14, 1927, in Nice, France Duncan went for a drive in a convertible and as she drove off purportedly shouted, “Goodbye my friends, I go to glory!” Moments later, her long shawl was tangled with a rear tire and her neck was broken.

While the lyrics are exultantly poetic, what makes the song exceptional is the arrangement created by master Johnny Pacheco.

The song opens with lush Classical strings playing a few chords of “Once Upon A Dream”, which was, fittingly, based on based on Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty (Duncan is now our sleeping beauty). It then launches into a 1970’s Salsa arrangement featuring a stalwart horn section. The song’s bridge marvelously combines the Classical strings with the Salsa horn section. The best surprise is during the final verse when a Rockabilly guitar is combined with the Salsa arrangement. The song climaxes, bringing in the best of the Classical strings and the Salsa horns. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, listen to the song because the arrangement will not fail to impress.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrINI3iS_tw

After all of my years of listening to music, the only word I can think of to describe this song is unique. It is truly one of a kind.

A regular feature of this blog will explore a favorite song. My first foray into writing about a favorite song was in February 2014 when I wrote about the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic, “Under the Bridge.” I was inspired to write this entry after hearing the song on my iPod’s random play earlier this week.

Additional Sources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gi3shupzL34

http://www.isadoraduncan.org/the-foundation/about-isadora-duncan

 

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Under the Bridge

I just starting writing this blog last month and had been considering a regular feature that highlights a favorite song of mine. I was inspired by yesterday’s events as well as a Facebook posting by a high school classmate that explored the dichotomy between how a celebrity drug overdose is treated by society (with empathy and understanding) versus the overdose of an ordinary person (with scorn and shame).

Prior to watching the Super Bowl, I learned of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from an alleged drug overdose. Later that night when I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers performing with Bruno Mars, I remembered Philip Seymour Hoffman as well as their masterpiece, “Under the Bridge.”

Anthony Kiedis wrote the lyrics after being sober for several years and felt that this had distanced him from his band mates who continued to smoke weed. Kiedis had also come out of a relationship that was badly marked by heroin and cocaine addiction. The combination of feeling that he lost a connection with his band mates and reflecting on the destructive relationship inspired this truly brilliant song.
“Sometimes I feel
Like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel
Like my only friend
Is the city I live in
The city of angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry”

In his memoir, Scar Tissue, Kiedis discussed this song:
“…the loneliness that I was feeling triggered memories of my time with Ione and how I’d had this beautiful angel of a girl who was willing to give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with fucking gangsters shooting speedballs under a bridge.”

The song begins with a slow intro that was inspired by the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8Xq0Y0dR-Q )

22_underthebridge3

The guitar playing becomes more rapid as the song progresses and after the last chorus, Kiedis is joined by an epic choir who chant “Under the bridge downtown” while Kiedis accompanies them, singing,
“Is where I drew some blood
I could not get enough
Forgot about my love
I gave my life away”.

The song was a vocal departure for Kiedis, who had spent most of his career up to this time singing rapidly. While I have never considered Kiedis to be a remarkable vocalist, his singing on this song is very sincere and absolutely unforgettable—I truly cried the first time I heard it. These lyrics and Kiedis’ vocals resonate deeply with me:
“I don’t ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way…”

I had not heard the song for some time and played it several times on my way to and from work today. The song felt as fresh as it did in 1992: it is beautifully textured, full bodied and grand in a very approachable way.  Like Picasso’s powerful commentary on war, Guernica ( http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/02/guer-f08.html ), “Under the Bridge” reminds us of the human casualty of drug addiction.

——————-

Watch the music video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLvohMXgcBo

——————-

RELATED RESOURCES:

http://teens.drugabuse.gov/

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/basics/definition/con-20020970

http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/understanding-drug-abuse-addiction

Motown: The Musical (Review)

The first time I ever played a record on my own was in 1972, when my parents bought me a compact record player that, when closed, could not be distinguished from a suitcase.  Since I didn’t yet have any records of my own, I went to their collection and played a 45 of “Love Child” by The Supremes. On that day I became a life-long fan of The Supremes, Diana Ross and the now legendary Motown sound.Love Child 45 Record

Over the last couple of years several Broadway productions have been mounted that pay tribute to favorite singers of mine, most notably, A Night With Janis Joplin and Forever Dusty. I have been hesitant about seeing these shows because I never saw these singers live. Of course I have seen videos, but they simply do not compare to seeing and hearing someone sing live. I feel a little left out. I remember being awed by a video of Janis Joplin’s electric performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Interestingly, someone filmed Mamma Cass Elliot’s (who was an awesome singer in her own right) reaction to Joplin’s performance and she is visibly blown away, her lips silently saying, “Wow!” I initially had mixed feelings when my sister, a fellow Motown devotee, gave me tickets to see Motown: The Musical. I wish I could have seen Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells and, of course, The Supremes live. Regardless of what I missed, I went in with an open heart and mind and was not disappointed.

Motown: The Musical explores a uniquely American institution, and its role in history.  Motown’s cultural contributions are enormous and this show bears that out.  Perhaps Motown’s greatest contribution is the way music brought people together; blacks and whites loved the music. The show does not shy away from issues like racism, segregation, poverty and war; in fact, the manner in which they are addressed felt quite germane. This was perhaps best depicted through Marvin Gaye’s timeless classic, “What’s Going On” —which was beautifully sung and performed by Jarran Muse, who magnificently captured Gaye’s sensuality, sensitivity and vocal power.

The actress playing Diana Ross, Felicia Boswell, had some big high-heel stilettos to fill. While she does not look like Diana Ross (many of the actors bore little physical resemblance to the people they were playing), she remarkably managed to capture the essence of Ross’ singing voice and, to an extent, her vibrant charisma. One of the most memorable moments is when the show re-enacts Ross’ first solo concert without The Supremes: singing “Reach Out and Touch” Boswell ventures into the audience bringing people on stage to sing with her. I have had debates with people who criticize Ross’ singing voice as weak—yes, it is not as strong as some of her contemporaries, but it is still rich, layered and vastly expressive. I have always been moved by her sincere singing in songs like “Mahogany” and “Touch me in the Morning.” Then there is Ross’ undeniable presence and star power—Boswell partially captures this, but “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

One of my favorite moments was when the audience meets The Jackson 5 for the first time.  Raymond Luke, who played Michael Jackson, was nothing short of remarkable. The audience reaction was equally stunning: it was almost as if a young Michael Jackson was really up on the stage! Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when the audience meets Rick James, played with absolute bravado by Eric LaJuan Summers. All I can say is that you have to see it for yourself.

I was quite disturbed by Tracy McDowell’s attempt to recreate Teena Marie’s singing—-get a better singer or cut this song out!  Another curious moment is when Florence Ballard (Allison Semmes) begins behaving unpredictably and Berry Gordy, ( Brandon Victor Dixon) says, “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.” I could have sworn I heard a few bars of “And I am Telling You”, from Dreamgirls, played on the piano.

The show makes good use of the stage, successfully integrating set pieces with video. The costumes were colorful without losing period authenticity.  The orchestra captured the Motown sound, making excellent use of tambourines, melodic electric bass-guitar lines, and orchestral strings.

Overall, I enjoyed Motown: The Musical and recommend seeing it. The music, singing and acting were excellent.  However, at times it feels like there is too much crammed into this show. Gordy, who wrote the show’s book, seemed determined to mention every act from Motown’s long roster. Gladys Knight and the Pips were only with the label briefly, considered second string and found their greatest success after leaving Motown.  Yet, they surprisingly make a brief appearance in this show. More than 50 songs are performed, many abridged, with the best presented in concert.

Gordy’s story is Motown’s story and both are truly notable and should be depicted onstage. However this show doesn’t quite do the story justice. Ultimately, this show is about great songs that have stood the test of time and will likely not be thought of in the context of this show.  The songs, and those who sang them, firmly stand on their own.

Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, 205 West 46th Street, Manhattan, (877) 250-2929, http://www.motownthemusical.com/. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.